x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Pressure on Formula One debutants to make an impact in 2011

As the four newcomers to F1 get ready to make their bow, Here's a look at how they are preparing for life in the spotlight.

Sergio Perez, left, has not even started a Formula One race, but he is much more in demand by fans of F1. Above he poses for pictures with spectators at an exhibition at Guadalajara in Mexico. Perez makes his debut in Australia on Sunday. David Leah / Mexsport
Sergio Perez, left, has not even started a Formula One race, but he is much more in demand by fans of F1. Above he poses for pictures with spectators at an exhibition at Guadalajara in Mexico. Perez makes his debut in Australia on Sunday. David Leah / Mexsport

The braces on Pastor Maldonado's teeth betray the maturity of the words that float out of his mouth in little Latin-tinged sentences.

The Venezuelan driver, having secured a seat with the Williams team for the impending Formula One season, will make his debut this weekend at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne. The race is expected to be watched by millions worldwide, yet he shows no hint of trepidation about making his bow.

"For sure, it is going to be an exciting moment for me, especially being my first F1 race, but it is just one more race," said Maldonado, who celebrated his 26th birthday earlier this month. "I have been racing for many years and it is the same."

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Driving GP2, as he has done for the last four seasons, is not the same as driving F1, with the added pressure of having to adapt and make an immediate impact. Maldonado knows this. So do his father and two uncles who also raced cars in their youth. And so do the other three rookies on the grid this season: Sergio Perez, Jerome d'Ambrosio and Paul di Resta.

Perez, a freckle-nosed 21-year-old from Mexico, will drive with Sauber after two highly successful campaigns in GP2. His father was a racing driver as well as being the manager of Adrian Fernandez, the Indycar driver, while his brother Antonio races in Nascar.

Motorsport is in his blood, but his childlike features appear directly juxtaposed with his sense of composure and level-headedness.

"For sure, people are thinking that now I will go to Melbourne and win," he said moments after clocking the fastest lap at the final winter testing session in Barcelona earlier this month.

"But we have to be realistic: this won't happen. We have to keep developing the car and when we get to Melbourne we will see where we are."

Di Resta, the Scotsman who will drive for Force India, is the exception among the quartet in that he did not graduate through GP2, the series widely regarded as the feeder to F1. The 24-year-old instead raced for four years with Mercedes in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) before being named test driver with Vijay Mallya's F1 team last season.

"It's fortunately not that different," said Di Resta, whose cousin is Dario Franchitti, the three-time Indycar champion. "DTM adopted the Formula One system a few years ago whereby you are the main feature of the weekend. Your preparation and track times are probably the same, but in F1, I am working a lot harder with the engineers on the finer details."

D'Ambrosio, the first Belgian to enter Formula One in more than 15 years after securing a seat with Marussia Virgin Racing, is the only debutant driver not to arrive with motorsport coursing through his family tree.

Yet he has an invaluable friend in Eric Boullier, the team principal of Renault F1 and the chief executive of Gravity Sports Management, the company that looks after D'Ambrosio's career.

"It's not what you know, but who you know," has never rang more accurate than in Formula One. Yet the result is young drivers facing criticism and accusations of effectively buying their seats.

Maldonado counts Hugo Chavez, the Venezuela president, as a personal friend and brings with him to the negotiating table the backing of his country's government through the state-owned PDVSA oil company.

Meanwhile Perez, for many years, has enjoyed lengthy motivational telephone conversations from Mexican mentor Carlos Slim Domit, the eldest son of Carlos Slim Helu, whose business portfolio earlier this month saw him named the wealthiest man in the world by Forbes.

Perez is backed by Slim's Telmex telecommunications company.

In that sense, Di Resta could have become disillusioned: unable to secure sponsorship to fund his single-seat career, forced to race touring cars in Germany for four years, watching as younger, better-connected drivers snuggled into seats his bulked-up frame could have filled instead. Yet he is philosophical.

"There is not really much in this world that surprises me at the moment," he said. "Everything in life just seems to be a bit different and things you never think would happen, do happen.

"You understand that F1 is the top of the sport and people take risks, people have an advantage, not necessarily a fair advantage, but it's the way the world ticks.

"If you were in that position, you would be laughing and feel very confident, but at the same time, if you are not, you feel disadvantaged. And I'm not saying in cars, I just mean generally in life."

The cut-throat nature of the sport means that each driver must perform immediately, a situation epitomised by Nico Hulkenberg, the German who impressed with Williams in his rookie season last year but not enough to save him from being dropped in favour of Maldonado's money.

He is now a reserve driver at Force India, playing second-fiddle to the debutant Di Resta and compatriot Adrian Sutil.

Di Resta does not seem surprised by his new-found status among the two dozen drivers that make up the motor sports elite.

For a young man who has only recently achieved his life goal and is days away from racing against the likes of Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso, at times his lack of liveliness could be misread for arrogance.

Yet he explains there has been no time to revel in the enormity of his achievement.

"Now that it's happened, you kind of take it in your stride," said Di Resta, who revealed he has been home for all of about five hours since January.

"If you had asked me last year when I was first told, then yeah it was a massive achievement as it was a personal goal that I set many years ago. But now that we are here, there is a job to be done and Formula One is a hard business and the work ethic has to be increased. You can't sit back and enjoy it because it's your performance that keeps you in here."

While Di Resta's involvement in the Young Drivers Test at Yas Marina Circuit last November was limited, the four-day programme provided D'Ambrosio and Perez with their first full day behind the wheel of a Formula One car, while Maldonado was able to clock up more than 400km.

Each of the four spoke highly of the programme with Di Resta saying "it is definitely something we should do again".

Since then, each of the 12 teams have used the winter testing sessions to improve and adapt their cars, yet as the season starts at Albert Park Street Circuit on Friday, the expected performance of each team is still unknown - and will probably remain that way until after the second race of the year in Malaysia.

For the drivers, however, personal targets are being set.

"I hope to do well, not just to finish the race, but to be in the points," Maldonado said. "That is my objective."

"Getting into the top five of the championship would be a fantastic year," Di Resta said. "That is what we are working towards."

"I am very young and only starting my career," Perez said. "I have a lot to learn, but I want to be in the points in Melbourne."

Youthful confidence: a trait that does not, for once, defy their endearing pubescent complexions.

 

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae